Mary Gordon has been trailing the women of her generation with novels since 1978, when Final Payments appeared with a protagonist who felt miserable in her sex's traditional role of selfless caretaker. Thirty years later, Gordon's women are still negotiating an equitable place in society, but the character she uses to illustrate this dilemma in her latest novel, The Love of My Youth, has ridden out her own version of the storms of Final Payments, and she's come out of it all, if not unscathed, then at least whole.
We meet Miranda in Rome where she is attending a three-week conference on public health. At the age of sixty, she seems secure with family (a Jewish husband and two grown sons), a respected profession, and a personal inheritance that affords occasional luxury. But her life's structure is suddenly challenged when she willingly walks into a reunion with Adam, the love of her youth, who happens to be in Rome, too, with his art student daughter.
We learn at the start that Miranda and Adam had been high school and then college sweethearts, and everyone had expected they would marry. But some cruel offense, left unnamed until the book's end, made their union impossible.
For the duration of their stay in Rome, the two decide upon an arrangement that sounds innocent enough to report even to their spouses: each day, they will meet for a walk, and Adam, the more frequent visitor here, will show Miranda parts of the city he loves best. These outings to markets and cathedrals and museums read somewhat like travel logs, except that they always are tinged with memory. Rome, after all, was the place where Adam and Miranda had spent a year together in their twenties when he came here to study music.
The conversations and musings Gordon gives her characters during their Rome vacation are part history, part philosophy, and part a settling of accounts. We learn that, during their college years, Adam remained absolutely committed to his music, while the anti-war movement drew Miranda into politics. Forty years later, Adam seems to have fallen short of artistic success, and Miranda has learned to be an idealist without being a martyr. Against the reflection of the past, which each sees in the other, they try to determine whether their choices were wise, or if they would have done better together.
This novel's premise could have led to a dry, intellectual narrative. But in Gordon's capable hands, Miranda and Adam's chats over coffee as well as their discussions of art reverberate with discoveries that speak to all who either have shared, or have wondered about the aftershock of coming of age in the Sixties. The result is a touching tale that sometimes pains, but just as frequently comforts the reader with its honesty, insight, and wisdom.